The Gulf Oil Spill as observed from NASA's Terra satellite on May 24, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The Gulf Oil Spill as observed from NASA’s Terra satellite on May 24, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

By Margaret Cronin Fisk and Daniel Lawton

Dec. 16 (Bloomberg) — A former BP Plc engineer deliberately destroyed evidence sought by the U.S. for a probe of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico well explosion and oil spill, a federal prosecutor said at the end of a trial in New Orleans.

Prosecutors charged the engineer, Kurt Mix, with two counts of obstruction of justice last year, alleging he deleted from his mobile phone text messages and voice mails related to BP’s effort to estimate the size of the spill. Mix was a senior engineer involved in leading efforts to cap the Macondo well as crude gushed into the gulf.

“Kurt Mix knew exactly what was on that text message string when he deleted it on Oct. 4 and 5 and intended to obstruct this grand jury investigation,” Leo Tsao, a federal prosecutor, told the jury today. “The defendant acted with corrupt intent when he deleted text messages.”

The blowout of BP’s deep-water Macondo well off the coast of Louisiana in April 2010 killed 11 people and set off the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. BP agreed last year to pay $4 billion to resolve the federal criminal probe of its role in the spill.

The London-based company pleaded guilty to 14 criminal counts including 11 for felony manslaughter, one misdemeanor under the Clean Water Act, one misdemeanor under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and one felony count of obstruction of Congress for misrepresenting the size of the spill.

Destruction Denied

Mix, the first defendant in a criminal case over the spill to face a jury, was accused of deleting multiple messages, including one in which he said the spill was bigger than the company said it was. Mix denies intentionally destroying evidence and has pleaded not guilty.

“The government’s theory is pure nonsense,” Michael McGovern, Mix’s attorney, told the jury today. “He doesn’t have a corrupt bone in his body.”

Mix is charged with deleting messages on two separate occasions, once in October 2010 involving communications with his supervisor, Jonathan Sprague, and later in August 2011, over exchanges with Sprague and a contractor named Wilson Arabie.

Mix’s lawyers contend there is no evidence that he acted with corrupt intent in destroying messages on either occasion.

“Kurt didn’t have any secret knowledge of flow rate,” McGovern said in his closing argument today. Mix was “open and transparent, through and through,” he said.

Mix was involved in leading BP’s efforts to cap the well, including a procedure called Top Kill, the U.S. said in court papers. Mix had access to internal company data on the amount of oil flowing into the gulf.

‘Well Above’

He knew that BP’s internal estimates of the flow rate were “well above” the numbers the company was citing publicly and higher than the maximum 15,000 barrel-a-day limit for Top Kill to succeed, the U.S. said.

Mix didn’t disclose this at a meeting of government officials and BP engineers in May 2010 and subsequently erased references to it on his iPhone, prosecutors said.

He sent a text message to a supervisor on May 26, 2010, saying that the flow rate was too high for Top Kill to work, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Barbara O’Donnell said in a sworn statement filed in the case.

“Too much flow rate — over 15,000 and too large an orifice,” Mix said, according to the U.S. He later deleted the text, O’Donnell said. The U.S. was able to recover most of the texts, including this one, using “forensic tools,” she said in an April 2012 filing.

Flow Rates

Mix shouldn’t have been indicted and was wrongly cast by the government as a central player in a BP cover-up, his lawyers said in court filings. They also contend the 2010 deletion occurred before a grand jury investigation began and the 2011 messages had no relevance to flow rate estimates.

Mix “repeatedly shared with the government, all through the Macondo response effort, the very same information that these prosecutors claim he was trying to hide,” Joan McPhee, Mix’s lawyer, said in her opening statement Dec. 3.

Mix deleted some messages, “but that is not the issue in this case,” she said. He wasn’t intending to hide anything, McPhee said. “He had nothing to hide because he had done nothing wrong,” she told the jury Dec. 3.

BP told Mix to retain all records related to the Macondo well incident, including text messages and voice mails, Tsao, the prosecutor, told the jury today.

“It’s simply beyond reason that Kurt Mix in good faith thinks he actually complied with the legal hold orders,” Tsao said.

“When a person destroys evidence to keep it from the grand jury, that undermines the very system of justice itself,” the prosecutor said. “It’s a crime and Kurt Mix should be held accountable.”

The case is U.S. v. Mix, 12-cr-00171, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

Copyright 2013 Bloomberg.

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